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Working to increase diversity of PLOS Biology Academic Editors and Advisory Board members

In the last few years I have spent a lot of time thinking about, and worrying about, the diversity of people involved in various aspects of the life sciences.  One area I have focused on extensively has been presenters at conferences (see some of my posts on this topic on my Tree of Life blog here).  In one recent online discussion about a conference I felt was heavily biased towards male speakers, a responder said something to the effect of “Oh yeah, well, what about the diversity of Editorial Board and Advisory Board members at PLOS Biology?”  And, well, they were right.  We do in fact have a less than ideal sampling of diversity there.  Two aspects of diversity in particular are, I think, in need of work – representation of women, and international coverage.  So as the new Chair of the PLOS Biology Advisory Board, I have decided that working on this diversity issue will be my main first task.

Fortunately for me, the PLOS Biology team has been not only very receptive to tackling the diversity issue, but has already been developing a plan to tackle it for some time.   Our goal for now is relatively simple – increase representation of women and people not from the US on the PLOS Biology Editorial Board and Advisory Board activities.  A key question however is – how do we achieve this goal?  To answer this it is necessary to figure out where the bottlenecks are in representing diversity in these groups.

Clearly, one possible bottleneck lies in invitations to join the Editorial Board and Advisory Board.  The path to becoming a member of the PLOS Biology Editorial Board is relatively simple – the PLOS Biology Editorial team invite new people to serve as Guest Academic Editors (so called Guest AEs) for a few papers.  If they do “well” then they can then be invited to be official Editorial Board Members.  So – we plan to do targeted Editorial Board recruitments to increase the diversity of people invited to be Guest AEs.   For the Advisory Board, the approach is somewhat similar – the PLOS Biology Editors identify what one could call “Super” AEs (labelled as such due to their workload and general commitment to the journal, often going beyond the normal call of duty of Editorial Board members), and these people are invited to join the Advisory Board.  We also plan to do targeted recruitments to increase the diversity of those invited to be on the Advisory Board.

But of course, just inviting people is not enough.  One needs to get people to (1) hear or see the invitations; (2) to consider the invitations seriously; and (3) to accept them.  In my experience in dealing with diversity issues at conferences, it seems that #1 and #2 are actually quite challenging.  People are overwhelmed with email and meetings and schedules and responsibilities.  So if you just send out a bunch of email invitations to a few extra people, if you only hear back from a small % of people you invite, this may not be too useful.  Same with the Editorial Board I suppose.  An email that says

Dear Dr. So and So.  We are inviting you to take on a new responsibility that involves extra work for you.  In exchange we can offer you no payment and little recognition

is probably not going to excite some of the key people you want to get involved.  So some more personal contact is almost certainly going to help.  This of course takes time, and some effort.  But it is probably worth it.  Fortunately, PLOS Biology is relatively unique in the biology journal world in that the Editorial Board members do little if any of the “grunt work” and can focus on the science.  The PLOS Biology Editors handle the main tasks of screening submissions, recruiting Editorial Board members to serve as Academic Editors, and making recommendations for reviewers.  The job of the Academic Editors is to advise the staff on whether a paper should be reviewed, and who good reviewers might be.  But the invitations to review and the chasing down of reviewers is done by the  journal staff.  Then, when reviews come back in the PLOS Biology Editorial team read through them, summarize them, and make a recommendation for what to do next.  They then consult with the Academic Editors to get their input on the reviews and the recommended course of action.  It is actually a relatively pleasant experience for AEs, to tell you the truth.  If more people knew how this worked, I have a feeling that more would say yes to invitations to be on the Editorial Board (some more detail on the process is available here: From Academic Editor in Chief to Chair of the Advisory Board: figuring out an official role for me (Jonathan Eisen) at PLoS Biology).

Plus of course another way to get people to say yes is to tell them that there are free to say no for specific requests whenever they are too busy.  What you want is for people to want to help you, not to feel they have to help you.  In the end, my goal as the Chair of the Advisory Board is to have PLOS Biology serve as a model for strong representation of diversity on its various Boards.  This may take some work, but it is important work.

And while I am at it, I think I would like to crowdsource this activity by asking for others to help.  Do you know strong open science advocates who are also good scientists who might be interested in getting more involved?  Are you perhaps such a person?  Send me / us the names and any other information by email or post comments here.

Finally, I want to add, that I realize that simply increasing the number of women and international representatives on the various PLOS Biology Boards is not the only aspect of diversity that we can or should tackle at PLOS Biology.  But it is a start.  And part of the start is to be more open about discussions of these issues.  In that regard, if any readers have experience with ways to increase diversity in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields, or for that matter, other areas of academics,  it would be great to hear about it in comments.

  1. This is great to hear (as a woman of color scientist soon to be living in Europe). But I will note that increasing the # of women and international editors is one step – ensuring they are not simply “token” representatives of diversity is another. But that latter part is also related to content. Good luck and look forward to seeing more about this.

  2. Ever thought about adding PhD candidates as assistant editors of some kind?

    You need people willing to do work for recognition, and we need to get our names out there. Obviously close supervision is a given, but I’ll volunteer if you’d consider it.


  3. Well I think we are all grateful that the people with the least experience are going to be the last ones asked for any job, but every editor was completely inexperienced at one point.

    Just a thought. Glad to hear you’re not desperate for help. Thanks for responding.

  4. Hi,
    Great blog.
    Have you considers inviting faculty from small colleges that require both excellence in teaching and publication-quality research? We are a diverse bunch and include many women. We are also sometimes forgotten by people at research universities. But we are scientists, too, with Ph.D.’s (often from fancy places like Harvard), post-doc experience, and experience running our own labs, full of undergraduates…I could share with you a list of schools that require significant scholarly engagement of their faculty.
    Sincerely, Phoebe Lostroh, Colorado College

  5. It would be phenomenal to have better representation from such institutions (this is actually another important aspect of diversity – Institutional diversity). So any volunteers or suggestions for names would be great — you can post them or email them to the link in the post or directly to me jonathan dot eisen at gmail

  6. Hello — as the President of the Assoc for Women in Science (AWIS) I echo the supporting statements and encourage you to reach out to AWIS and other groups who could be helpful to you. I also am wary of diversity efforts that mainly emphasis how the numbers look. Biology has been gender-balanced for decades so it seems odd that the editorial board would be imbalanced. It might be worthwhile examing the PLoS Biology culture for implicit bias or other factors that make service to this publication unattractive.

  7. Since you’re selecting your Advisory Board from your Editorial Board, and your Editorial Board from your Guest AEs, and your Guest AE’s from your reviewers, it might be worth examining whether there’s a ‘white male’ bias at the reviewer selection stage. You can’t excel as a PLoS reviewer if you never get asked…

  8. I would like to volunteer as a reviewer for PLOS ONE. I am fully retired from
    my practice in Anatomic and Clinical Pathology and I have more time to devote to the Review process than persons who carry heavy teaching loads or who are in active clinical practice. As an Pathologist with 35 years of experience in Diagnostic hospital pathology practice, I have acquired fluency with each of the medical subspecialties. As an affiliated researcher with the Harvard McLean Hospital Brain Bank since 1986, I have completed a variety of investigations of various neurodegenerative disorders using Molecular interrogation techniques.
    My current interest is infectious disease pathology and pathobiology with
    special application to Lyme Neuroborreliosis.
    Respectfully submitted,
    Alan B.MacDonald MD ,FCAP, FASCP

  9. I’m being slightly facetious, but have you considered firing all the males that have not contributed significantly to the editorial process?

  10. Well, we should probably get rid of anyone who does not contribute, whether they are male or female. Token representation of diversity is not a good goal in my mind. There are many reasons in my mind to have a diverse board – but none of them involve having people there just to have them …

  11. Hi,
    One question may be whether there are many different ways in which people could participate in the whole process, as suggested by other respondents. If the job is framed around received wisdom about what the job is, it will be difficult to diversify. Also sometimes “outsider” feedback might be more candid, not influnced by what establishment scientists already agree us ‘important’ or ‘interesting,’ or even a well-done set of experiments that tell a compelling story. We don’t turn our brains off after choosing to pursue other scientific career options. We may not use exclusively the hottest new technologies, but we are still biologists.

  12. As editor-in-chief of another open access journal (a society journal, Frontiers of Biogeography), we’ve recently faced the issue of diversity, and I can bet it is a difficult one. Luckily, we had some females in our editorial board, but certainly less than a half, or than a third, which seems roughly the proportion of females in our discipline, so we have been working on it for the last couple of years. However, we refused to restrict to gender, and seeked for geographic and topic diversity; we realized that we had an overrepresentation of the USA and Europe, and also that some areas like phylogeography were less represented than they should be according to their relative importance in terms of practicing biogeographers. Rather than rushing, we carefully hand picked lists of good potential editors (wiling, critical and at the same time constructive) to cover each missing or little represented topic… and then prioritized females and people outside Europe and USA… to find many of the names we chose were already overcommited! Getting those acceptances is certainly difficult, Jonathan, I can bet. Our strategy has been getting to the young but consolidated researchers that we already knew, that we saw (and interviewed) at conferences or that came recommended by the people we were inviting in the first instance. So now we’ve got a nice editorial board which we still have to work in (it never stops) but with certainly more diversity.

  13. How do young researchers get experience as reviewers? I’ve only been asked to review one paper, which was outside my area of expertise (passed it on to three colleagues who reviewed it instead). The invitation came from a friend in another field who thought I would know better who to give it to, even if I didn’t want to review it myself. I would really love to do some reviewing, I just have no idea how I get involved beyond this who-you-know approach.

  14. Hi, here are some resources that might be helpful to you:
    AJE Expert Edge recently had a post – Gaining peer review experience.
    At COPE (Committee on Publication Ethics) we’ve this year produced some ethical guidelines for peer reviewers which we hope will be especially helpful to new reviewers . There’s also an article on the background to the guidelines and their evolution.
    Sense About Science has a booklet, Peer review: the nuts and bolts, aimed at early-career researchers.

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